ATHLETIC DIRECTORS: Why are So Many Long-Time Coaches Being Let Go at Scarsdale High School?

Something very curious has been happening at prestigious Scarsdale (NY) HS over the last couple of years. Despite having some very successful athletic programs, at least half a dozen experienced head varsity coaches have been let go.

And in all of the cases, nobody knows why. Even some of the dismissed coaches were simply told, in effect, “The school wants to go in a different direction. Thank you for your service.” And that’s about it. As one coach commented, “I’ve given a lot of years of real sweat and effort to this team as the head coach, and with just a couple of sentences, I was let go.”

You might recall that a few weeks ago we had a very probing discussion on my show about the practice of HS coaches being hired on a year-to-year basis. That’s standard operating procedure pretty much for public school coaches. There’s no tenure for HS coaches.

And as part of that discussion, we talked about when AD’s and School Boards DO decide to make changes (e.g. firings) with coaches – that is, a coach is fired or let go – that, by law —  the School Board or the AD never has to reveal their reasoning or rationale for their move.

That is, they simply say it’s a “personnel matter” and that they’re not allowed to go beyond that.

“WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK ABOUT IT”

We talked about how disruptive it is to fire or not renew a coach….and that maybe there should be some sort of meeting or correspondence with the parents and athletes as to explain why. But for the most part, that just doesn’t  happen, merely because the AD knows there will be lots of questions from the parents and local media – -questions that the AD can’t answer.

After all, when a coach is let go – especially a head varsity coach – the ripple effect can be very, very strong within the community.

Players on the team search for answers….the parents of those kids want to know why…and even the parents of younger kids who are perhaps, at the JV or freshman level, want to know what kind of impact there will be on their children….and of course, everybody wants to know who the new coach will be, and how things are going to change.

Now, of course, if a coach has been with a HS program for a few years, and the team is not very successful in terms of its won-loss record, well, then often the coach will see for him or herself that perhaps the time has come to step down. That happens all the time.

At the other end of spectrum, we know there’s an increasing rise in varsity coaches who – although being successful – have stepped down often because of what they view as too much parental interference. Too much meddling by pushy parents. Again, this is part of the American HS sports landscape these days.

So what happens when a relatively new AD comes into a top-level public school with really good varsity teams — and suddenly a bunch of coaches are let go?

In effect, that’s been happening at Scarsdale HS in Westchester County, NY,  and because no one from the school’s administration will go on the record as to why these coaches were let go, parents and their athletes don’t know what to make of what’s going on. In just two years, the AD – Ray Pappalardi —  has terminated five head varsity coaches, and another one stepped down under pressure. And the vast majority of these coaches have enjoyed great success with their programs.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

Now, just to be totally objective here, there may very much indeed be strong and substantial reasons for why these coaches were terminated…but of course, under current state laws, we will never know. Ray Pappalardi, the AD at Scarsdale HS, is regarded as a top-level AD and administrator, and even though he couldn’t reveal for those coaches being dismissed, he assured me that there were real and justifiable reasons for their termination.

I asked Todd Sliss to come on the show this AM, because Todd knows better than anyone what goes on in the Scarsdale school district. He’s an award-winning sports editor and reporter for The Scarsdale Inquirer weekly newspaper covering Scarsdale and Edgemont high schools for nearly 20 years.

In going through the coaching situation at Scarsale, Todd confirmed that most of these programs had reached high levels of success, and that the coaches were experienced and viewed by other competing schools with admiration. In fact, in several cases, once each Scarsdale coach was terminated on, say, a Friday, by the following Tuesday, they had several offers to coach from competing school districts.

In short, it would be great if somebody somewhere within the school district would explain what’s going on. Todd said that the town of Scarsdale is becoming polarized as parents are taking sides on which coaches should been kept and which firings were good ones. Todd also mentioned there’s a growing sense of anxiety among the remaining Scarsdale coaches that they might be the next to be let go. And the other growing fear is how will Scarsdale be able to find new coaches to replace the ones who were just let go? I mean, who wants to go work in a school district where coaches are routinely fired?

SOME POSITIVE SUGGESTIONS

We did have some excellent calls this AM. One listener suggested that perhaps the time has come for HS coaches to form a union, not unlike the teacher’s union, in order to give some protection to coaches. Another caller said that AD’s need to provide a better form of transparency to parents in the community when a coaching change is made.

And another caller pointed out that, chances are, most of these changes in Scarsdale probably have some sort of connection to parental interference with the AD or school administration about the coach – in spite of the coach’s teams doing well.

Unfortunately, that last observation probably comes with a great deal of truth to it. Parents these days just feel entitled to complain to the AD if their kid isn’t getting enough playing time. Regardless of whether the team is winning or losing, if enough parents complain to the AD about the coach, then that can eventually accumulate enough weight for the AD to fire the coach.

It wasn’t always this way. But as one caller noted today, it’s as if parents are more than ever determined to interfere. It’s probably the number one reason why so many excellent HS varsity coaches leave the public schools and join with travel teams where they can’t be fired.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Talking Lacrosse with Matt Madalon, Princeton Head Coach Men’s Program

I was delighted I could arrange an interview with Matt Madalon on my show today. We all know that lacrosse has become one of the most popular sports with kids today, but having a chance to chat with Matt was personally rewarding for me.

That’s because I hadn’t seen Matt since he and my son John played for two years as teammates in the Darien (CT) ice hockey program when they were middle-school age. Matt and John both played as forwards, and along the way, as a sports parent, I got to know Matt’s dad, Joe, who is one of the world’s nicest people.

And there’s more. Scott Madalon – Matt’s uncle – played for me when I coached college baseball at Mercy College. Scott was a fierce competitor, and as a closer, he was an absolute flamethrower for me. It was great fun to have coached him. I also knew and played against another Madalon uncle, Howie, who was a top ballplayer at Pace University and in the summer semi-pro leagues.

Meanwhile, back to Matt. After graduating from Darien HS, he went on to become an  All-American lax goalie at Div III Roanoke College. Matt was talented enough to eventually sign a contract and play professionally in Major League Soccer.

As a result, as we fielded excellent calls today, Matt made it clear that he’s a big fan of Div. III lax, as he points out (and I of course agree) it’s more important to play and get quality playing time at a D-III program than to just ride the bench at a D-I school. Matt is Exhibit A: If he hadn’t gone to Roanoke where he played and starred, Matt might have “died on the vine” riding the pines at a D-I school.

In any event, the Princeton Tigers were 9-6 overall, and finished 4-2 in the Ivy League, and preseason predictions are looking good for Princeton. Matt is in his third year as the head coach

We covered a lot of ground this AM, but here are the headlines:

RECRUITING: For a long time, college lax coaches have been tried to tap into the youth market to recruit kids as young as 8th and 9th grade. As Coach Madalon pointed out, that madness has been curtailed by the NCAA. These days, lax coaches are not allowed to contact to prospective students until the youngster reaches September of their junior year. Amen — that rule makes a lot of sense, and also takes a lot of pressure off developing lax players.

Matt also made it clear that he and his staff definitely review high-light reels and videos from kids who are interested in applying, plus he attends a number of major showcases and tournaments each spring and summer.

SHOT CLOCK: Matt does feel that it’s only a matter of time before a shot clock is implemented into the college game. From his perspective, it just adds more excitement and impetus to the game. He’s thinking a shot clock could be adopted as early as 2019.

ANALYTICS: As with the other major sports in this country, Matt says that analytics are also beginning to become more commonplace in lax. They aren’t as in depth as say, baseball or basketball, but they are definitely working their way into lax.

YOUTH AND TRAVEL PROGRAMS: Because the growth of lax has been so explosive all over the country, as one caller from Wisconsin said, it’s still hard to find enough talented youth coaches. Plus there are still concerns about travel teams being more about paydays for coaches than actually providing solid instruction. Matt was aware of this, but did point out that US Lacrosse, the governing body of the sport, is continuing to step up its efforts to make youth instruction much more uniform, easily accessible online, and cautions parents to check on the prices of joining a travel program.

CONCUSSIONS AND COMMODIO CORTIS: Another caller talked about health issues, including the number of cases over the years of lax players being struck by the ball hard in their chest and suffering a rare condition called commodio cordis. This rare injury is usually fatal as it causes a sudden heart attack. Madalon (as a former goalie) is well aware of this most serious problem, and made it clear that all of his players now wear protective shields over their sternum in order to cut down on potential heart attacks due to being struck by the ball.

Same goes for concussions. Coach Madalon is very much aware that lax should be viewed as a skill sport, not a contact one. He even went so far as to predict that he feels that traditional contact in men’s lax will probably be ruled illegal in the years to come.

Overall, a most fascinating conversation with one of the real up-and-comer’s in the sport of lax. If you’d like to hear the full interview, go to WFAN.com and find the link to podcasts.

 

 

HEROIC ATHLETES: Kids Learning the Power of Giving Back

Teaching Players Citizenship

Through Community Service Projects

 By Doug Abrams

 One night after a preseason practice a few years ago, I sat down with a few players on our Central Missouri Eagles Youth Hockey Association’s high school club team. I was the team’s goalie coach and served on the association’s board of directors. The board had recently adopted an ambitious credo for the association’s teams and families: “Building Good Athletes and Great Citizens.” Now the association sought to insure that the credo would spur citizenship education through hockey, rather than rest as an idle promise on a banner or letterhead.

This column describes the national, state, and local recognition that the Eagles association received for its teams’ service projects that lived up to the credo. Other high school programs and youth teams of all ages can chalk up similar achievements with service projects that make a difference.

“Now We’re Doing It Worldwide”

The Eagles high school players voted unanimously to make our opening game a benefit for the local children’s hospital. Our home games usually drew about 300 fans, and we offered free admission that night to anyone who brought one or more new stuffed animals for the sick and injured patients.

We hoped to collect about 100 donations, but we sorely underestimated community generosity. Thanks to local media coverage and flyers distributed earlier in the week at the ice arena, we collected more than 500, mostly from the game’s attendees, but many from the players’ families, friends, and classmates. Three weeks later, the high school team’s tri-captains spent a Saturday afternoon at the hospital visiting with the young patients and distributing the toys.

In their thank-you letter, hospital staff described “how powerfully these dedicated [Eagles players] have impacted the lives of the sick and injured children. . . . Their work delivering stuffed animals, smiles, and friendship to our patients has brought immeasurable happiness.”

The Eagles high school team continued the Children’s Hospital Night once each year, and the number of stuffed animals collected swelled to nearly a thousand. Opposing teams sometimes brought stuffed animals to the game, and the teams’ cooperative efforts helped produce clean, hard-fought contests.

One year, the Children’s Hospital Night collected so many stuffed animals that physicians distributed some when they performed pediatric surgeries and other procedures in developing nations overseas. “Hockey lets us put smiles on kids’ faces,” an Eagles tri-captain told a reporter, “and now we’re doing it worldwide.”

Setting an Example

The high school team’s players were the Eagles association’s oldest, and the Children’s Hospital community service project set an example for the younger teams — the mites, squirts, pee wees, and bantams whose players ranged in age from five to fourteen. Before an early-season practice every year, each younger team held a locker room meeting, sometimes led by the coaches and sometimes led by the captains. The players voted on a project and then performed it, guided by their parents and coaches, who reinforced the virtues of volunteerism. The players often chose their own projects, though the youngest teams would choose from projects suggested by the adults.

Over the years, Eagles younger teams collected toys and clothes for the local shelter that protects abused and neglected children. And collected hundreds of new and used backpacks for abused and neglected children in the local family court. And hundreds of cans of food for needy families served by the local food bank. And hundreds of children’s books for county health clinics that serve needy local families.

Each project enriched community life, worthy accomplishments for teens and pre-teens. The projects united each individual Eagles team toward a common goal, and the projects also united the various teams as they helped one another accomplish their projects. Because the winter’s prime focus was on learning and playing hockey, the younger teams (like the high school team) performed their projects in a discrete period, usually about two weeks.

Dividends For the Players

Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that by volunteering to help others, people also help themselves. Recalling his early impressions when he first joined the Eagles, one high school player wrote this in a school essay: “When I learned of the Children’s Hospital Game and other community service projects done by the Eagles, I was in shock. I said to myself ‘What kind of hockey team is this?’ I quickly discovered that it was not just a hockey team; it was another step in life.”

Many Eagles parents and coaches sensed that besides this immediate personal enrichment from community outreach, performing service projects earned their players a credential that would soon enhance their applications to prospective employers and colleges that value backgrounds marked by civic engagement and selflessness. Players now had narratives for the essays and personal interviews that these applications typically require, and materials for the attachments that the applications sometimes permit.

Eagles players earned plenty for their future narratives and attachments because media coverage led national, state, and local leaders to recognize their volunteer efforts. A Missouri U.S. Senator and two local U.S. House members praised the Eagles, and their statements were published in the Congressional Record. Missouri’s Governor met with the Eagles and issued a proclamation honoring the players for public service initiatives that “have brought honor to Missouri.” The Missouri state Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions honoring Eagles teams for “setting a positive example.”

Eagles appeared on local radio and television. One local daily newspaper editorialized that the Eagles “have won big” with the community service projects, and the paper earlier called the high school team “a philanthropic organization on skates.”

The Eagles association received the Honoring the Game Award, presented annually by Positive Coaching Alliance, based in northern California. The Award recognized three youth sports programs nationally that “strive to win, but also strive to help their players develop skills that will serve them throughout their lifetimes.”

“The Eagles credo says it all,” read PCA’s citation, but “it’s not enough just to say it all. The Eagles do it all too.”

 Teaching Citizenship Through Sports

Integrating a community service project into a youth league season is not difficult to accomplish. First, the team or league should enlist support from the parents and coaches. Then empower the players by letting them vote for their favored project. Give youthful generosity a chance, and assure players the needed encouragement and support once they decide. The players can rise to the occasion, even while they and their families also perform whatever fundraising project the sports association requires or urges to help contain the rising financial costs of their own enrollment.

Philanthropy and community service are learned impulses, and the impulses can endure. I happened to see a former Eagles high school player at a recent social gathering. Now in his early thirties, he still talks about the team’s stuffed animals drives for the children’s hospital — and he still donates time to worthy causes.

One parent told PCA what the Eagles’ high school community service projects taught his son, who was then a college junior: “He has chosen to forego a personal opportunity in order to travel to Mississippi . . . to volunteer in hurricane rebuilding efforts. He has learned to contribute.”

In communities large and small, sports can be a force for positive good. When youth leaguers volunteer their time and energies, parents and coaches teach citizenship through team membership and athletic competition. The players learn about what President Barack Obama called “the beauty of service.” And about President George H.W. Bush’s instruction that “any definition of a successful life must include serving others.”

A MOMENT TO REFLECT: Marking 20 Years of Sports Parenting Talk on WFAN Sports Radio

This Sunday AM marks my 20th year on the air at WFAN, and I wanted to pause for a moment to reflect on the issue of sports parenting and how it’s evolved – at least from my point of view – over the last two decades.

Now, many of you know I first became drawn to the field of sports parenting when I was working with the Cleveland Indians as their roving sports psychology coach back in the 1990s. At the time, my three kids were young – in fact, Samantha, our youngest, wasn’t even born until 1990. But in talking with top professional athletes in the Indians’organization who had gone through all the trials and tribulations of overbearing coaches and pushy parents, it became clear to me that the days of laid-back, easy-going Moms and Dads at youth games were long gone.

And as I became a sports parent myself, I saw first hand what my own kids were going through in youth sports in those days: coaches who insisted that kids specialize in only one sport….coaches who were inexplicably mean-spirited and sarcastic to young kids….coaches who lied to young athletes…coaches who refused to accommodate young athletes who wanted to play a variety of sports…coaches who didn’t care a darn about kids who sat on the bench…coaches who were hired even though they didn’t have any credentials to work with kids in that particular sport.

And the parents? Moms and Dads who screamed at their little kids in LL and soccer and hockey games…parents who screamed at other parents’ kids on the team to “pass the ball” or “to play better defense”…parents who cozied up to the coach in the hopes that their kid would receive more honors at the end of the season or garner more playing time…and parents who lived their own failed athletic dreams through the careers of their kids…

HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED…

It was all hard for me to absorb. I had grown up in a much more innocent time where organized youth sports leagues were few and far between, where kids devised their own pick-up games, and parents were rarely seen at youth games. We found our own way, and played sports because, well, they were just fun. Nobody worried about making a travel team because there were no travel teams. No one worried about college scholarships. You played because it was joyful to be with one’s buddies and away from homework.

But as my kids grew into elementary and middle school age, I saw all of these landmines and unexpected obstacles pop up in youth sports…and I couldn’t believe it. Even more, I felt that if I were witnessing all of this – and seeing my own children try to navigate all of this – I figured that my experiences were probably common everywhere. That is, other sports parents were having the same issues as I was.

And judging from the calls, emails, letters, and invitations to speak over the years, I am convinced that my suspicions were true.

Because the truth is: it’s one thing to be a die-hard fan of your favorite pro team. But parents who are sports fans are 100 times more passionate about their own child who play sports. Or at least that’s how our society has evolved.

Always remember this: as my colleague Doug Abrams always points out, Coaching someone else’s kid is a very serious responsibility. Never take that task lightly. To that end, as I’ve reported in recent weeks, the stings and barbs of being a chronic bench warmer as a young person stays with an individual pretty much for the rest of their life.

The point is: youth sports is now, as Time Magazine reported a few weeks ago, a $15 billion industry, and parents today are struggling with making key choices for their children: at what age should my kid specialize in one sport? Should they specialize in one sport at all? What about ongoing concussion concerns? Football is well known for concussions, but what about soccer, ice hockey, and so on?

How about travel teams? They seem to be gaining in strength in terms of showcasing young athletes. But they’re expensive and time-consuming. Should my kid try out? Should I have my child wait a year to start school, so that he will be one of the older and more mature kids in his class?

The list, of course, goes on and on. That’s precisely my Sports Edge radio show has been on WFAN for 20 years, and why this blog continues to be very popular.

SINCERE THANKS ARE IN ORDER

But before I start planing for the next 20 years, I do want to take a moment and sincerely thank some key people and colleagues.

First, I want to thank Mark Chernoff, the VP and GM of WFAN Sports Radio, who had the vision and, quite frankly, the courage to put me on the air. Back in 1998, I don’t think any other radio station in the country had the guts to do a show about sports parenting, but Mark – a sports parent himself – took a chance, and years later, I’m still taking your calls and writing about this ever-changing and important subject.

And my thanks, of course, to WFAN top producer, Dov Kramer who has offered such great help and support to me over the years.

I also want to thank my wife, Trish, who has sacrificed countless late Saturday night parties, family get-togethers, and big events solely because I needed to get home on Saturday night to get some sleep — just so I could get up early on Sunday to be here.

My wife is a long-time and beloved English teacher in the Chappaqua (NY) School District, and Trish, I just wanted to take a moment to publicly thank you for your endless patience and kindness to allow me to do this show, which as you know has been a real passion of mine. Anyone who has spent time around my wife knows what a terrific and supportive person she is.

I also want to thank my Mom and Dad, who couldn’t have been better sports parents …fully supportive, never pushy, always with a smile and pat on the back for every one of my teammates over the years….regardless of whether they were a star or saw only limited time in the games. Mom and Dad always knew the right words to say.

And of course, I want to thank each and every one of you who have listened in over the years, and especially those of you who have been moved to call in and talk with me. In addition to learning a tremendous amount about sports parenting issues from you all, in many cases, I’ve become great friends with you as well. And that’s a wonderful and unexpected windfall of this job. That includes people like Steve Kallas, Doug Abrams, Denise from Connecticut, Coach Tom from North Arlington, Rob from Lake Success, Mike from Lynbrook, Bob Bigelow, Wayne Mazzoni, Dan Venezia, John Minko, and well, the list is pretty much endless.

So I thank you all for sharing your stories, insights, and advice with not only me, but with the millions of concerned sports fans who tune into WFAN each year. It’s been both a joy, and a blessing for me.

With my very best regards – Rick

 

COACHING TIPS: The Plight of the Bench warmer – Part II

Because of the overwhelming reaction to my show last week about bench warmers, and what happens to the psyche of a kid who rarely gets into a game, I felt compelled to return to this topic during one of my on-air segments today.

Not surprisingly, the phone lines lit up immediately. More and more heart-wrenching stories from parents who felt their youngster was short-changed by the HS coach in terms of playing time.

Now, of course, my show is open to anyone to call in and voice an opinion. I realize that can be a two-edged sword, meaning that callers can make claims or put forth statements that may or may not be true. After all, we don’t have the time, personnel, or money to fact-check or to do due diligence on our callers.

And I realize that, emotionally, callers may exaggerate the facts of their kids sitting on the bench in HS, or rarely getting into games.

On the other hand, I also recognize that perception is key in all of these cases. That is, if a parent feels strongly that the coach never put their kid into a contest, even though the reality may be that the kid DID play on occasion, the parental perception may be totally skewed. Yet at the end of the day, the parent is convinced that the coach was unfair and insensitive to their son’s or daughter’s plight. So, in effect, while the reality may be different from the caller’s claims, the perception is that the kid got gypped in terms of playing time.

PERCEPTION V. REALITY

One caller this AM told a story about his daughter who he admitted was not a superstar soccer player, but was good enough to make the varsity team. Yet she never got into games. In one match, the father recalled with vivid detail and with great sadness, his daughter’s team was winning 11-2, and the coach made sure to get in lots of girls from the bench into the lopsided affair. Every girl, that is, except his daughter.

The Dad, of course, was crushed. His daughter came home in tears. Subsequently, the girl went to the coach and asked why she had been left on the sidelines. The coach – -and again, this is from the father’s account – told the girl that “I only play those girls who show enough talent that will develop.”

In other words, the coach was basically confirming to his player that she wasn’t very good, and that in the coach’s opinion, she would never be good enough to get into a game.

Now, let’s be honest. I don’t have all the facts in this account. I don’t know the girl, her Dad, the team, the coach, nothing. Maybe the Dad forgot to tell me that his daughter was lazy in practice. Or didn’t go to all the practices. I have no idea. But assuming that he was giving the facts in a straightforward manner, and that his daughter went to all the practices and worked hard, then this kind of story is very upsetting.

COACH, IT’S UP TO YOU TO PLAY ALL THE KIDS…

As a former youth, college, and professional coach, I still work from the philosophy that if a coach allows a youngster to make his or her team, then that means that the coach should have enough faith and confidence to play the kid when possible. Notice I didn’t say that the youngster should start. Nobody would argue that. But if the youngster makes the team, that strongly suggests that he or she had enough talent to convince the coach that they can participate in games. And honestly, the kid (and their parents) probably feel the same way.

Furthermore, Coach, if you play your bench warmers or subs even for a little bit of time in each game, that will allow them to increase and build their sense of self-confidence, and will lift their spirits to feel that they are contributing to the overall team effort. Even better, in my coaching experience, kids tend to raise their game to a higher level when the coach says, “Okay, you’re in!”

In short, Coach, if the kid’s on your team, find a way to play him or her. You’ll be amazed at the positive results!

COACHING TIPS: The Plight of the Benchwarmer…What Coaches, Parents, and Kids Need to Know

For those of you who follow ASKCOACHWOLFF.COM, you know that our friend and colleague, Doug Abrams, wrote a most powerful column this past week on this website.

It was such a powerful topic that I felt compelled to talk about it on my WFAN radio show this AM.

In short, in this day and age, when we are all so caught up and focused on who ares rising young stars in youth and amateur sports, I think Doug’s point of view is very much right on point.

That is, what do we do with the kid who doesn’t start on the team…the youngster who is hoping to get into the game but probably won’t…the player who has to sit and wait for his or her time to get in.

The young athlete who, unfortunately, is labelled, or viewed, as a benchwarmer, sees and views the game at hand much differently from the coach or from the way his teammates do. That is, the coach (and I’m talking primarily about HS varsity coaches here) is focused on his game strategy and X’s and O’s….the starters are locked in on following the coach’s game plan, and hoping to have a good game. But the kid on the bench? He’s hoping that the game results in a lopsided score so that maybe, just maybe, he or she might get some playing time.

That may be harsh, but deep down inside, for anyone who has ever sat on a HS varsity bench, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And of course, there’s more. The parents of the benchwarmer are also wondering why their child isn’t getting more playing time. You know what happens next: the coach starts getting emails or calls from the kid’s parents as to what’s going on.

THE MOST DIFFICULT MESS OF THEM ALL

Let’s back up. Playing time at the elementary and middle school ages (as well as travel teams) should never be a problem. Every kid on the team should play at least half the game. And coaches, you have to make sure that happens. That’s the most important part of your game approach. Winning at those ages is NOT your top priority. Getting kids lots of quality playing time is. That’s rule number one.

I recall when I was coaching youth soccer. The games were often divided into quarters, and I kept a detailed scorecard for each quarter, and made sure that not only did each kid on the team play at least half the game, but I also made sure the youngsters rotated positions.

Was this time-consuming in terms of keeping track of playing time? A little bit. But I knew two things:

1 – That in the end, my won-loss record in coaching youth soccer wasn’t a top priority.

2 – That the moms and dads and grandparents who came out to watch the games were there for one singular purpose  — to watch their child play, and play at lot. They did not come out to see them sit on the bench.

And a couple of things happened….my youth soccer teams won more often than they lost…why? Because I think since all the kids on the team knew they were going to play, and play a lot, they brought an extra sense of energy to the games.

And two…the kids and their parents came away from the games with a sense of joy.

Trust me, that counts for a lot.

At the youth level, coaches, I can’t emphasize that enough.

But admittedly, things get more complicated as kids get into HS age. Example. One of the callers on the show this AM complained that his son played on his HS football team, went to every practice, but never got a minute of playing time in the games. Hard to believe how a coach could do that to a kid. But I fear that this kind of thing happens more often than we want to admit.

There was also significant debate about a HS coach simply telling a senior player on the team that: “Look, you’ve earned your spot on the roster, but you need to know that you’re not going to play much this year, if at all.”

While I feel for the coach being honest with the senior, I also know that the player is most likely not going to cut himself from the team. Instead, he’ll stay on the team, and hope and pray for a few seconds of action. From the coach’s perspective, he admitted that it bothered him that he would have to pass by this kid on the sidelines during the game, knowing full well that the kid desperately wanted to get in, but that the coach knew he wasn’t going to play him.

My perspective? If a kid makes your roster, then Coach, you are then obligated to make sure he or she plays and contributes even in some small way to the team. To become a perpetual benchwarmer is not only not fair to the kid, but it also plants serious seeds for division on your team.

BOTTOM LINE FOR COACHES?

Please give the concept of benchwarmers some serious thought and reflection. If you know you’re the kind of coach who tends to only play his starters all the time, then tear off the Band-Aid and keep only a minimal number of players. That is, cut the benchwarmers.

If, however, you’re the kind of coach who CAN find playing time for all of your players, then keep a solid number and make sure they all play at least a little bit.

In other words, this is one very, very delicate issue. Just remember this: Playing time for their kids continues to be the Number One complaint from parents to coaches.

 

COACHING TIPS: Be Sensitive to the Concerns of Your Benchwarmers!

 Emotional Safety — and the Harms of Benchwarming

By Doug Abrams

Headlines these days pay close attention to youth leaguers’ physical safety – concussions, over-use injuries, and other risks and conditions that damage health and well-being. But player “safety” also means emotional safety, this column’s subject. Parents and coaches fulfill their most important missions when an athlete emerges from the final youth league game both physically healthy and emotionally healthy.

In our society that places so much emphasis on sports, few humiliations damage a youth leaguer’s emotional safety more than chronic benchwarming.

USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, sets a wholesome standard for youth leagues: “Fair and equal opportunity for all to participate.” The National Hockey League, USA Hockey, and more than a dozen other prominent hockey organizations recently adopted a Declaration of Principles reaffirming that “hockey is for everyone”; the foundation for this imperative is respect for “each individual’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.” Similar aspirations should drive decision makers in other youth sports.

“Fair and equal opportunity” means more than just enrolling all interested youth leaguers and placing them on teams at appropriate levels of play. Enrollment and placement are the easy parts. The sternest challenge comes in games, when coaches eyeing the scoreboard get a tenseness in the stomach and might feel tempted to overlook some players for much or most of the contest. For more than 40 years, I coached youth hockey players who are now in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.  My former players still tell me why, in both the short term and the long term, emotional safety in youth sports depends on coaches who heed their better instincts by playing every team member.

Short-Term Emotional Safety  

In the short term, chronic benchwarming does not let kids be kids. Players join the team to play. They do not join to sit for a coach who thinks that benching some players might help win games whose scores families will likely soon forget. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow is right: “Few things violate a child’s basic wants and needs – and his or her basic rights – more than sitting on a bench.”

Childhood in America is meant to be a time of relative innocence and personal growth. Sports should deliver players fun and camaraderie, accented by personal achievement from giving best effort. Earning a living, paying mortgages, raising children, and similar weighty obligations will dominate their adult lives soon enough.

Long-Term Emotional Safety

In the long term, chronic benchwarming can leave permanent emotional scars from tattered self-esteem. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a letter-to-the-editor by a former Little Leaguer about memories of his chronic benching one summer when he was a fourth-grader more than a generation earlier. “Our coach played only the stars,” he wrote, “I remember nothing else of that summer . . . except the sole inning I played.  I struck out and screwed up a play in left field. For the remainder of the season, I was invisible to the coach.” The letter writer confided that “the shame and humiliation of that one night at age 9 never went away. I’m 50 now.”

Shame and humiliation can impose serious lingering deprivation. More than four decades of coaching youth hockey taught me that as many as a quarter of a youth team’s players are destined to lead difficult, challenging adult lives through no fault of their own.  On a roster of about 16 players, this means about three or four kids. When these players are adults years from now, they or a family member may experience disability or disease, for example. Or financial stress, loss of employment, serious accident or injury, or other crisis whose temporary or permanent dislocation can strike families swiftly and at random.

Today’s coach does not know which eager 11-year-olds will be dealt a difficult hand in life; the players do not know; and the parents do not know.  But these players are in the locker room, and they are standing right in front of the coach.

Nostalgia remains one of the great strengths of the human mind. When my former players cope now with family adversity, youth sports still provides some of their most enduring memories of pure, unvarnished fun. When adults hit personal roadblocks, they can draw confidence and fortitude from reminiscing about good times, including experiences years earlier on childhood playing fields or in locker rooms.

Coaches deprive their youth leaguers of emotional safety when bittersweet memories of chronic benchwarming disable this lifelong support mechanism. Players remember the good times, but they never forget the bad times.

The Key Question

Coaching other people’s children is serious business, a relationship grounded in trust and respect. How can youth league coaches know whether they are fulfilling their responsibility to help keep every player emotionally safe, now and later in life?

Look squarely in the mirror and ask one question: “How well do I treat my least talented player?” The answer will tell plenty about what emotional safety means to the coach.

 

Sources:, Declaration of Principles

https://nhl.bamcontent.com/images/assets/binary/290835644/binary-file/file.pdf; Bob Bigelow, Just Let the Kids Play (2001); Humiliation of Ineptness on the Field Never Left, L.A. Times, May 21, 2001, Part 5, p. 4 (letter-to-the-editor).

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Lavar Ball Tries to Undercut His Son’s Coach

I want to write about the latest outrageous antics of Lavar Ball, and how he had said publicly that Luke Walton, the head of the LA Lakers, has somehow lost control of this NBA team, and the Lakers’ ownership need to get rid of him.

I mean, really? This coming from the Dad of a first-year player (Lonzo) who is on the Lakers? Not to mention that Lavar has no real coaching pedigree or experience on which to make these assertions.

In short, he’s just a sports parenting Dad who doesn’t know when he has totally crossed the line. But of course, as one caller suggested today, maybe he truly is a marketing genius, and Lavar knows that as long as he keeps making outrageous comments, the media will flock to him and his door. And the more people talk about him, the more of his merchandise he can peddle.

Hmm….I hope not.

In any event, I wanted to get another perspective on this, and so I turned to Bob Bigelow. Bob was an All-Ivy League player at Penn back in the 1970s and he ended up as a first-round draft choice in the NBA. Since his playing days ended, Bob’s become – like myself – a very active sports parenting advocate based in Boston.

 

In short, Bob agreed with the assessment that Lavar has become most adept at using social media to help keep him and his three basketball playing sons in the spotlight. That being said, Bob felt that the comments about Coach Luke Walton did go too far; after all,  it is most rare for a father of an active player on the team to give voice to his opinion in such a public way.

The irony is that Lonzo has become just the opposite of his Dad. He keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t say to the media, doesn’t seem to want to try attention to himself. As a rookie in the NBA, he has impressed his teammates with his “pass first” approach on offense. True, his outside shooting needs to be improved, but overall, he’s made a genuinely solid impression. Except, of course, for his father.

Lonzo has said that he has no control over his Dad – which is certainly true – that his father is a grown-up and can say whatever he wants.

But you have to wonder what kinds of conversations he must have with his Dad about his father’s outspoken stuff. As noted, Lonzo has been relatively quiet and has tried very hard to stay out of the controversy. But he must cringe at what his Dad will come up with next.

Bob agreed, and I took it one step further: Can you imagine if the Lakers decided that they would want to trade Lonzo, would any other franchise in the NBA ever want this kid – not because of Lonzo, but because of the father? Whether he realizes it or not, he’s made his kid toxic.

Bob laughed and agreed. That would be a most challenging situation for all involved. Who wants to trade for a talented kid, knowing that he comes with parental baggage?

THE START OF A DISTURBING TREND?

One of the callers mentioned that Eli Apple of the NY Giants may be a victim of similar outrageous comments from his Mom. Apple is a top defensive back in the NFL, and starred at Ohio State. But he’s been criticized by some of his own teammates this year, and his mother has taken to the media to defend him. I find this very odd and unusual. But it’s not too different from what Lavar Ball is doing.

In any event, the caller concluded – and I worry about this – that we might be seeing more and more outspoken sports parents in the immediate future. Parents taking issue with how their kids are being treated at the professional level. And if that’s happening at the pro level, you can only imagine what is going on at the collegiate and HS level.

In short, this is not good and doesn’t bode well for coaches who are trying to build a sense of team camaraderie when parents are openly talking and criticizing them in public. Yes, of course, parents can and do have their opinions. But giving air to them? It’s hard to see how this can lead to any kind of positive outcome.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing SECRETS OF SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY REVEALED…

Today is the day I’m going to talk about sports psychology.

Many of you know me as primarily focusing on sports parenting issues, having written youth sports columns for a decade for Sports Illustrated, and of course, doing my Sports Edge show on WFAN Radio for the last 20 years.

But before I went into the area of sports parenting, I developed a strong and lifelong interest in sports psychology. This goes back all the way to my days in college and in graduate school. For years, I promised myself I would put my thoughts and insights into a book which focused on sports psychology, and would tailor it to athletes, coaches, and parents, and I’m happy to report that my book is now available for sale this week, both in bookstores as well as online at Amazon or BN.com. It’s available both in paper or as an ebook. The book is entitled Secrets of Sports Psychology Revealed: Proven Techniques to Elevate Your Performance, and in it, I’ve tried to provide the reader with a basic primer of what sport psychology is , and how a young competitive athlete can benefit from it. There’s even a chapter at the end on sports psychology and sports parenting, since the two topics often go hand in hand.

 

First, some quick history. Sports psychology is a relatively new science. When I was an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1970s and was studying psychology, and I was also an aspiring baseball player, I wanted to find as many books and studies as I could about the mental side of sports.

Of course, this was long before google and the internet, so there was no online search. I basically went through the old fashioned approach of library research: going through card catalogs in several of the Harvard libraries. To my amazement, and disappointment, there was only scant material.

In short, there was very, very little about sports psych that I could find in the literature. Oh, there were a few articles here and there, but for the most part, sport psych was a brand new field that was being practiced only in some degree by the East Germans with their Olympic athletes.

But beyond that, no one in American sports – especially at the professional, collegiate, or HS levels  – was fully involved in helping athletes when it came to their mental approach.

It just didn’t exist.

But for whatever reason, I found this topic to be fascinating and I continued to pursue it. And bit by bit, over the years, I was thrilled that it began to grow. I did my senior honors thesis at Harvard about sports psychology and specifically how top athletes viewed the world in a different way than most people do, and I also earned my Master’s in psychology as well. I had the opportunity to interview the members of the New York Knicks championship team in 1973, and I was fascinated by how these fellows viewed life. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Along the way, I played professionally in the Detroit Tigers organization, and when I retired from that, I started to coach at the collegiate level. I also started to write articles and books about sports psychology.

AN AMAZING BREAK

Then, one day in the late 1980s – I got a call out of the blue from a gentleman I didn’t know named Harvey Dorfman. Harvey explained to me that he had been working for the Oakland Athletics for a few years  as their mental skills coach- this is when the A’s were winning World Championships – and he told me that he knew of my work and writing in sports psych, and he wanted to recommend me to other major league teams.

I was flattered and thrilled beyond belief – and to make a long story short, I was approached by several major league GMs and decided to sign on with the Cleveland Indians. For somebody who had a huge interest in sports psychology, and in working with top pro athletes, this was a dream come true. I spent the next five years working with the Indians in everyday contact with the major league players, the minor leaguers, the front office and so on.

Harvey, by the way, spent years in baseball and worked as a sports psych coach for several major league teams and worked with literally hundreds of top players, many of whom went onto become Hall of Famers.

Harvey Dorfman was my mentor – and he was considered to be the pre-eminent leader in the field of sports psychology for pro athletes. In short, he truly opened the door for people like me and others. In any event, I joined Cleveland in 1989. This was when the Indians were just beginning to rise and become dominant in the American League in the 1990s. Young minor leaguers like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and many others were in the Indians’ minors at the time, and it was the experience of my lifetime to get to know and work with these talented ballplayers.

Along the way, I found that pro players had many of the same issues and concerns and worries that most of today’s athletes have when it comes to playing at a high level. I encountered questions such as:

o Are pre-game rituals and superstitions okay to have – or should they be avoided?

o Is there is a guaranteed way for an athlete to reach the “zone” – that rare stretch in a game when everything is going your way, and everything seems to slow down…as a basketball player, you just don’t miss a shot…as a pitcher, you have perfect pinpoint control of your pitches…and so on.

o Does visualization really work – and is it a good practice for athletes?

o What about making adjustments in the heat of battle? You hear commentators talk all the time about a player having to make adjustments in a game – what does that really mean from a psychological perspective?

What about just taking a deep breath when things get tight? Does that work?

Questions like these pepper the elite athlete’s mind. Which is one of the main reasons why I wrote my book. More to the point, these days most athletes focus only on their physical skills – running, weight training, doing repetitions in their skills — that they rarely if ever focus on their mental approach to the game. In short, they just go out and play.

But as you climb higher on the pyramid of competition, you find that you begin to need every advantage you can get, and the mental side of your game becomes more important.

So I wrote the book to be an overview while also covering key topics. It’s deliberately written to be fully accessible – there’s no psychological mumbo-jumbo in it. It’s written for immediate and direct application and use by athletes.

A QUICK SAMPLING

Here’s just a very brief overview of some of the points I discuss:

1 – Let’s start with superstitions and pre-game rituals….This is all tied in with an athlete trying to get into the zone….and if he or she had a really good performance in their last game, then they are instinctively going to try and repeat everything they did in their pre-game preparation in the hope that will elevate him or her to the zone again.

That makes sense and also explains why athletes will often repeat the same pre-game meal (remember Wade Boggs and his obsession with eating chicken on game day?), or wearing the same clothes, or taking the same route to the locker room.

So these “superstitions” are fine – so long, of course, that they don’t get out of hand or interfere with the rest of the members of the team. In my experience, so-called superstitions are just a way to psychologically prepare oneself to play better.

2 – Then there’s visualization….This has been around for a number of years. I recall first reading about this mental rehearsal practice in a classic book entitled PSYCHO-CYBERNETICS by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who was a surgeon. Before doing an operation, he would mentally rehearse and “see” in his mind’s eye every aspect of the upcoming procedure.

Other performers do the same thing….actors, dancers, musicians, and so on. They want to visualize every aspect of their upcoming performance – and most importantly, see themselves performing in a totally positive way. That’s key. But to visualize properly and to do it right, you have to be very precise in your approach. This is covered in my book.

3 – What about the standard advice about dealing with pre-game anxiety by taking 2-3 deep breaths?

You hear that all the time from coaches and parents – it’s become common advice when a player is in a tight spot in a game: “Just take a few deep breaths.” But does this really work?

In my experience, I tell athletes not to try and avoid the nervousness, but to embrace it!

That is, when your body is so wired and seemingly anxious – that’s a good sign. That is, your body is telling you that it’s fully ready to rock and roll – that your body is humming like a tuned-up race car at the start – and that your body is full of adrenaline.

So, rather than try to avoid, suppress, or walk away from those feelings, I tell athletes to look forward to it…it means that your physical body and mental approach are alert and ready to go.

Many years ago, when Bill Russell was the superstar center of the legendary Boston Celtics, he would get so nervous before each game that Bill would have to throw up.  It became something of a regular event before games.

So much so that his teammates began to realize that they wouldn’t be ready to take the court until Bill threw up. But once he did, they knew that not only was Bill ready to go, but so were they. You get the idea. They all looked forward to and embraced Bill’s pre-game nervousness.

In any event, can you still take a deep breath when times are tight? Sure. But as you do, use that moment to remember to rely on your athletic instincts and experience. Learn to trust your hard-earned athletic skills. Those will get you through the tough times. It ‘s those key elements that will take you where you want to go – not just taking a deep breath or two.

4- What about self-talks? Do they work?

Well, yes, they do. But only if the athlete has done their homework long before the game.

 

When you find yourself in a jam, this is where your pre-game self-talk comes in handy.

Have you ever seen a pitcher in a game on the mound, seemingly having a conversation with himself? This is a self-talk in which the pitcher is using a few pre-planned reminders of the mental blueprint he’s trying to stick to during the game.

This keeps the pitcher from losing focus or losing control of his actions. Harvey Dorfman introduced me to the power of mental cue cards..These are small cards that many athletes use in their pre-game warm-ups to help remind them what they need to do to maintain their mental focus when it starts getting rocky on the field. Some athletes write reminders on their wrist bands…others in the bill of their cap….but again, these are the basis of self-talks.

I’m a huge proponent of these cue cards which I cover these in the book.

 

Again, this is just small sampling of the mental approach in sports, but I do hope you will pick up a copy not only for yourself, but to share with your athletic son or daughter. Since my days in college, when sports psychology was not even a well-known term, we have evolved where just about every professional or collegiate team has a sports psychology coach on call.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: NBA to Copy LL World Series with Junior NBA Championships

I was reading this past week about a brand new concept that’s being introduced by the NBA – a concept that will have a direct impact on kids who play basketball and who aspire to play at a higher level. The idea is aimed to develop a similar kind of national and international playoffs and world championship – just like they do each August in Williamsport – but with basketball kids who are 13 and 14 years old.

And like LL, the NBA would televise these games, and of course, they would show case these kids as rising stars in the game of basketball.

In discussing this idea on WFAN this radio, I received all sorts of responses from basketball coaches and fans. The responses, I would say, were mixed to the NBA tournament.

But first, let me post verbatim from the NBA’s press release of a few days ago (I added the boldfacing):

“In showcasing the world’s top young talent, the Jr. NBA World Championship will be centered on four core values – teamwork, respect, determination and community – that will set a new standard in youth basketball development.  In collaboration with USA Basketball and FIBA, the competition will promote standards of safe play as well as the proper training and licensing of coaches to enhance the experience for everyone involved.

The Jr. NBA World Championship will align with the NBA and USA Basketball Youth Guidelines, which promote health and wellness in several ways including recommending age-appropriate limits on the number of games that youth should play.  All coaches participating in the Jr. NBA World Championship will also be required to be trained and licensed by USA Basketball (U.S.-based coaches) or FIBA (international coaches).

Youth at the Jr. NBA World Championship will not only compete on the court but will also receive off-court life skills education and participate in NBA Cares community service projects.”

I came away with a few takeaways from this announcement. Clearly the NBA is eager to take control of the pipeline of the best young players in the world. That has traditionally been the domain of AAU basketball in this country. What this new move by the NBA and how it will affect AAU is unclear. As several of the callers pointed out today, the AAU season goes from March through June, so at least on paper, this shouldn’t have an impact. Plus, the elite AAU teams are comprised of HS upperclassmen, not kids in 8th or 9th grade.

And the press announcement made it clear that only coaches who have been trained and licensed by USA Basketball will be allowed to coach in the tournament. Again, it’s unclear how this would affect AAU programs.

Another question that arose is how teams for the tournament will qualify. That is, will it be travel basketball teams or regional teams? Or just LL, will there be only local town teams that are allowed to participate?

QUESTIONS AND MORE QUESTIONS

One caller asked whether the kids and their teams who qualify would be somehow compensated for their advancement. After all, the NBA will make money from corporate sponsors and from TV sponsors. But just like LL baseball players, what do the kids (and their families) receive except for a lifetime of memories? As the caller said, “Memories are very nice….but why not add some some of financial stipend that can be used for the kid’s college education?”

That would be a very, very nice touch. LL has not offered that yet, but perhaps the NBA will be more enlightened.

Some sports parenting pundits have worried about the extra pressures that having young teenagers play on national TV is unnecessary pressure. But I don’t share that concern. Kids today relish the opportunity to strut their stuff on TV (to wit, look at the LL World Series), and I haven’t heard or read of any undue issues with that.

Plus if the coaches are truly well taught by USA Basketball on the elements of team play, discipline, defense, and so on, then I think that’s another major plus for these talented kids. As I have noted in the past, AAU coaches can vary widely in their ability to teach the whole game; too often, AAU has devolved into being nothing more than a personal showcase for kids to shoot and score.

So for right now, I’m cautiously optimistic about the NBA Jr. World Championship. I’m eager to find out more about the details, and if it works, then who knows? Maybe there will be world championships for other team sports, such as ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, and volleyball?